St Helena Cut Off From The World As Flights Grounded

St Helena joins a list of other islands effectively isolated as its sole air service is suspended. The small British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic had a weekly Airlink service from Johannesburg. But Airlink suspended all its flights yesterday, leaving St Helena reliant on shipping and charter flights.

Airlink provided the sole air service into St Helena. Photo: Bob Adams via Flickr.

Not that this is anything new to St Helena. The island has long made a virtue of its isolation. When the French got sick of Napoleon and exiled him to St Helena in 1815, it took ten weeks to ship him there.

Things have improved slightly these days. St Helena is only five days on a ship from Cape Town. England sends a ship down with mail and supplies every fortnight. St Helena only got its airport in 2014, and quite the airport it is too. The 1,950-meter runway juts 300 meters out into the sea. South Atlantic winds and weather combined with the dramatic landscape of the mountainous island make arriving and departing quite an event.

A new airport brought high hopes

There were high hopes that the new airport would see an influx of tourists onto St Helena, helping to prop up the struggling local economy. But the difficulties of landing at the airport meant that it was only really suitable for smaller aircraft. Airlink, with its fleet of Embraers, ended up being the only operator to the island.

Prior to suspending flights, Airlink was the largest independent regional airline in Southern Africa. It has 53 aircraft, mostly a variety of Embraers, but it also has seven BAe Jetstream 41s and four Cessna 208Bs. Airlink flew to 39 destinations around South Africa, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Ascension Island, and St Helena.

St Helena Airport just after it opened. Photo: Paul Tyson via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year it made approximately 60,000 flights and carried around two million passengers. That breaks down in just over 33 passengers per flight. The airline is proud that it has grown ever since it first started up in 1992.

The flights to St Helena used an Embraer E190. But due to wind shear issues and runway limitations at St Helena, only 76 of the 99 available seats were ever filled. Flying time across from South Africa was about six hours – so it was quicker than the boat.

However, Airlink has moved to suspend all its flights as of midnight (local time) on 26 March. The flights are suspended through to 20 April. Movement restrictions imposed by the South African government made the decision inevitable.

One of Airlink’s BAe 146s. Photo: Bob Adams via Flickr.

Airlink Managing Director and Chief Executive, Rodger Foster, said;

“We intend to gradually reinstate a new optimised schedule of services once the lock-down has been lifted.  Whilst the restrictions are currently intended to last for 21 days, we will take our cue from the Government and the relevant health authorities. Our target date for recommencing operations will be 20 April 2020” 

It’s the big airlines and airports that get most of the attention these days. But it is the smaller outposts like St Helena that are arguably harder hit by this crisis. Most countries can maintain a skeleton air service and have alternative modes of travel available. Once an island, especially an isolated island like St Helena, loses its air link, the situation is particularly grim for local residents, traders, and the local economy.